BEIJING — The Chinese Foreign Ministry is not known for its sense of humor. But when the Trump administration announced plans to impose $50 billion worth of tariffs, it issued an unusually tart response.

On Tuesday, the White House warned that it plans to hit Chinese electronic, aerospace and machinery products with billions in fresh duties, the latest twist in what is shaping up to be a major conflict over trade. Many in the United States worry that protectionist measures threaten supply chains and could mean higher prices for American consumers.

China swiftly hit back with a warning of its own that U.S. tariffs will be met with comparable measures from Beijing. Tucked into the Chinese Embassy’s response, between references to win-win cooperation and referrals to the World Trade Organization, was this understated bit of shade: “As the Chinese saying goes, it is only polite to reciprocate.”

For a country whose official communications lean heavily on bland rhetoric, the quiet quip read like a late-night comedian’s zinger.

A few hours later, China did, in fact, reciprocate and showed it was not joking around, threatening $50 billion in tariffs on U.S. goods if the Trump administration does not back down, in what many see as a step toward an all-out trade war. 

The plan it outlined Wednesday would hit 106 U.S. products — including such big-ticket trade categories as soybeans, cars and some airplanes — with 25 percent levies.

Also included on the long, and in many cases oddly specific, list published on the Foreign Ministry website are beef, with and without bones; dried cranberries; fresh and frozen orange juice; various forms of tobacco (tobacco waste, hookah tobacco, tobacco cigars, partially or totally deterred tobacco stems), whiskies (no details provided); and chemicals (liquefied propane, primary shaped polycarbonate, etc.).

The move sent markets tumbling and intensified fears of an escalating series of moves on China-U.S. trade. 

Chinese officials and analysts say China is demonstrating that it has no intention of bowing to pressure from President Trump.

Wei Jianguo, a former vice minister of commerce, said the key to understanding Beijing's response is “same proportion, same scale and same intensity.”


A man passes past a bench shaped like a bomb and a U.S. flag outside a store in Beijing on Tuesday. (Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty)

“That means we will retaliate with the same strength,” he said. “Whatever the total value of trade the United States targets, we will target the same amount. If it’s in the form of tariffs, we will do the same.”

The prospect of a tit-for-tat economic battle between the world’s two largest economies? Not funny at all.

Luna Lin in Beijing contributed to this report. 

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